For many people, especially women, much of their mental energy goes
into stuffing their feelings so far down they don’t even know they
have them. They spend their life pleasing others, seeking the approval of
everyone but themselves.
“We are nobodies. We are in hiding. We don’t know who
we are,” says psychologist Emilie Ross Raphael, Ph.D., of Chapel
Hill, North Carolina. She means “we” not in the collective
sense but in the personal sense. She includes herself among those who
have—or in her case, had—to learn how to be honest about her
Typically, says Raphael, the problem involves always saying
“yes” when often you mean “no.” And the
resolution typically comes down to giving yourself permission to feel
angry—and finding the courage to say what’s on your mind
without fear of losing the love of others.
Until this happens, it’s not possible to have a healthy
relationship. Hurt feelings are inevitable in relationships, bound to
arise in a fast-paced world of imperfect communication between
The trick is speaking them. That requires expressing anger
appropriately—one of the great challenges of being a grownup and
managing ourselves. More often people hold their feelings in, then at
some minor infraction explode out of proportion to the cause, often
bewildering everyone around them.
It’s not an overnight process. You have to learn to set
limits with others. And to move the sources of approval inward, from
outward. “This is the story of my life,” says Raphael.
“It comes from having hard-to-please parents who set high
standards. When we grow up we carry the critical parents around in our
head. We become the critical ones. We are, for example, forever
discounting compliments. And we maintain a low self-image by selectively
focusing on negative input from those around us.”
For starters, you have to begin to think of anger as a constructive
emotion. It’s a signal that your feelings are hurt and you must
move into conflict resolution. Raphael sets out the steps in her book
Free Spirit: A Declaration of Independence for
Here is Raphael’s advice for expressing anger
&bull Examine whether your current anger or resentment or hurt
feelings are the tip of a much larger iceberg. How long have you had such
feelings? If you get upset with your husband because he’s going out
with his buddies for an evening, maybe it really isn’t about that
instance but about how much of his himself he generally gives to you and
your feeling that it isn’t enough.
&bull Learn to be brave. If you feel that you are easily
intimidated into backing down, write down your feelings and give your
writing to the other person.
&bull Don’t make blaming statements. Conflict resolution
begins with the understanding that truth is relative. So much depends on
one’s perspective, and none of us has a lock on the whole picture
of anything. Nevertheless, most people start with exactly the most
destructive question: Who is right and who is wrong. Two people spend
time trying to convince the other of the rightness of his or her own
position. But in fact, most disagreements are based on interpretations
that come directly from private experiences in life, not some verifiable
The single best way to resolve conflict is to listen to the other
party. Most people just want to be heard; it is a basic form of
validation. And often the solution suggests itself from what is
&bull Allow your partner to express his or her grievances. This
is a good thing, because otherwise these feelings build walls between
&bull Take responsibility for your part in creating problems.
Ask yourself: How did my actions and the things I’ve said or failed
to say helped to create this situation or crisis?
&bull It’s the final step that people most commonly fall
short on—accepting responsibility for making things better.
“You need to seek out what will make the situation better in the
future so this situation doesn’t arise again,” observes
Raphael. “Further, you need to tell the other person, ‘this
is what I need from you now to make things better.’ You need to
take responsibility for what will fix it now. Is it merely listening? Is
it an apology? Most people miss this piece.”